The weather last night in Maryland matched the mood after the passing of legend Brooks Robinson was announced. Josiah Gray had to face a Baltimore team that he almost beat in April when he held them to one-run and lost 1-0. He was playing the shadows of M&amp;T Bank Stadium where his favorite football team plays. Few Orioles fans are probably aware that Gray regularly dons his Lamar Jackson jersey. In a case of déjà vu, Gray lost again by a score of 1-0 against the O’s this season just like he did on April 18, 2023. His season finished with a 3.91 ERA, and ranked him 61st on FanGraphs for starting pitchers with at least 90 innings, and 82nd in WAR although that’s a cumulative number. Suffice it to say that the Nats lone All-Star is a solid No. 3 starter on a good staff. Fair enough.
Miles from Nationals Park, Gray finished with one of the best starts of his career. Sure, he had that 10 K game on August 7 of 2021 just after he was traded in that blockbuster Max Scherzer/Trea Turner deal with the Dodgers that brought Gray and his battery mate Keibert Ruiz to D.C., but this game was a strong finish in a second half where Gray struggled with stamina and mechanics. The Orioles did not have a book on Gray in their first meeting, but the they had a book on Gray last night — and he clearly changed the words. Just one bad sequence to start the game was the only run given up via a leadoff home run in which he inexplicably kept dotting the same spot on the bottom of the zone.
Baseball is a funny game. You pitch great and watch your team lose just like in his first four starts because he got zero runs of support. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Joey Meneses smashed a ball 405 feet to centerfield that was caught. On a warmer day, that is a 2-run homer. Sometimes your luck and BABIP don’t meet at the same intersection.
Gray admitted in the offseason that at the Major League level the 4-seam fastball wasn’t getting the results and it “hadn’t boded very well” for him. He initially added the cutter to neutralize lefties. Most of it is the confidence where he doesn’t have to nibble on edges and go after the batters and give his pitches a different look. Last night he attacked the zone.
Gray had one college scholarship offer coming out of high school at Division-II Le Moyne in Syracuse to play for head coach Scott Cassidy. At Le Moyne he was able to shine as the best D-II pitcher that year in college which led to getting drafted in the second round, and an eventual No. 42 prospect ranking in all of baseball as he was thriving in the Dodgers system.
The right-hander is a cerebral person, and one of the smarter players you will find. He was a business management student and and Academic All-American. Even when he knew he was going to be drafted in the spring of his junior semester in college he hit a 4.0 GPA. As an intelligent person, you figured that Gray would come to the conclusion that he had to change things up or end up in the minor leagues. He could not survive on what he did in 2022 which was really bad when you lead the league in homers and walks…as a pitcher.
What worked in the minors took its toll on Gray to find out that his great 4-seam fastball did not translate well to the Majors where it was a liability and not an asset most of the time. A greater pitch mix would also force batters to not sit on his 4-seamer if he decided to throw it and miss his target. In 2022, the mistake pitches were being hit for homers at an alarming rate of 2.3 HR/9 and worst in the Majors. This year he nearly cut that rate in half to 1.2 HR/9. Unfortunately walks were up by .50 per BB/9 over last year but ERA came way down from 5.02 to the 3.91 and that was all about controlling the home runs.
The cutter really changed his season even though that was the pitch that was hit for the homer last night. Again, there is more to baseball than pitch selection. Location, location, location matters in pitching just like real estate. The season of 2023 was a definite building block for Gray.
For the long-time Nats’ fans, Jordan Zimmermann was the immediate comp to Gray based on their similar repertoires. But JZim had pinpoint command, but then again, Zimmermann didn’t have Gray’s cutter. Both pitched for cold weather small schools and led their divisions in college, and drafted in the second rounds of their respective drafts. JZim attended the Wisconsin–Stevens Point.
It was Gray’s command and control issues that forced him to make serious changes in his job. Throw for more movement or perish on a trajectory of the scrap heap of failed pitchers who could not adjust to the adjustments that hitters make on you. Remember, after Gray’s 10K start against the Braves in 2021, they tagged him for three runs the next time they faced him. That’s what good teams do, unless you adjust further to make yourself better and change the book. Gray is doing just that in writing new chapters. He is now using his curveball as his pseudo-changeup just like Zimmermann did. Some games that worked. Many times he runs up his pitch count because he cannot put away batters.
Often, Gray was searching for a putaway pitch. Can he throw the curveball as a change of speed pitch but also as the hammer Nola-esque shape that Aaron Nola dazzles with? Gray had that pitch when he came to the Nats as you see in the Twitter above. Where did that pitch go?
Few people can throw a cutter like Mariano Rivera which propelled him to the Hall of Fame, and anyone can tap their knee on the mound like Tom Seaver did in Shea Stadium, but imitating the best rarely translates for the copycat. But get in the lab and grind and put your best foot forward, and maybe you create your own self and the success that goes with it. Credit to Gray, he has persevered, and finished strong.
By finishing a full season at 30-starts and 159.0 innings, Gray can work on stamina and pitch shaping over the winter. You have to think he can be a No. 2 starter in a good rotation, and that is the key that the Nats need to add a No. 1 starter to see this rotation properly.
How soon before Mike Rizzo is phoning Gray’s agent at Icon Sports Management to talk about his future and an extension? Okay, maybe that is getting ahead of ourselves, however this is great improvement for Gray. We should celebrate the good because we all know how much chirping goes on when things are not going right like we saw in most of July and August. Baseball is tough.